<b>HOME GYM:</b> "I think I invented circuit training because I had to -- I didn't have the time to rest," Don Wildman says.

HOME GYM: "I think I invented circuit training because I had to -- I didn't have the time to rest," Don Wildman says. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

We're 45 minutes up a forbidding Malibu dirt road that climbs 2,200 feet in four miles, and the Wild Man is ahead. Way ahead. Out-of-sight ahead. And my excuses begin:

"I'm a mountain biker, but I've never ridden right after a grueling, two-hour, all-body weight-room workout before." "It's so hot -- 90 degrees and rising -- that I'm literally blinded in my own sweat." "I'm bonking because I haven't eaten a thing in over three hours."

But, of course, the Wild Man hasn't eaten either. He lifted the same weights I did, probably more. And, amazingly, he hasn't swallowed one sip of water all morning; he didn't even pack a water bottle on his bike. So at the top, when he greets me with his typical upbeat attitude -- "Wow, I'm really getting strong; that's the first time I ever rode this in my middle chain ring" -- I look at the leathery brown face, the slightly stooped shoulders, the washboard abs and bulging biceps, and I face reality: "A 76-year-old man just kicked my butt."

And then: "I better train harder."

Malibu resident Don Wildman, possibly one of the fittest septuagenarians on the planet, has always had that galvanizing effect on people. Founder of the company that became Bally's Total Fitness, the giant health-club chain, Wildman not only made a career out of telling people to get fit, he fit the part himself, packing his life with daily workouts and an endless parade of grand physical challenges -- world-class sailing races against Ted Turner, 90 holes of golf in a day, nine Hawaii Ironman triathlons.

The activities didn't retire when he did 15 years ago. He picked up big-wave surfing, helicopter snowboarding and stand-up paddle boarding, once paddling the length of the Hawaiian Islands. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he leads "the Circuit," a grueling two-hour weight workout at his gargantuan home gym that has become legendary in Malibu. He rides seven days a week and paddles three. "I don't rest," he says.

And as you read this, he probably isn't sleeping. He'll be racing round the clock across the country on a road bike as part of Team Surfing USA, a four-man team competing in the 3,000-mile, coast-to-coast, Race Across America.

The team portion of the race, known as RAAM and now in its 28th year, began Saturday in Oceanside and will finish in Annapolis, Md., in about a week. Team Surf, which paddled 115 miles from Malibu to the start and will bike and paddle to the Statue of Liberty after the finish, hopes to use the event to raise money and awareness for several causes, including ALS (Augies Quest), autism (Beautiful Son Foundation) and cystic fibrosis (the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation).

A RAAM veteran, Wildman did the race at age 60 on a 1994 team that finished a few back from the winners in five days, 21 hours, and 24 minutes. Today, the father of three grown sons is old enough to be the dad of two of his RAAM teammates -- Tim Commerford, 41, the bassist for the rock group Rage Against the Machine, and 45-year-old Laird Hamilton, the famed big-wave surfer. He could be a grandfather of the third, Jason Winn, 27, owner of Bonk Breaker energy bars.


A day in the life

Entering my 50s and hoping to stay fit, I had wondered if I could hang with Wildman. I'd heard raves about him from tennis great John McEnroe, one of his Malibu riding buddies, during an interview. Hence, the workout and subsequent ride up the hill.

Now, with that pertinent question clearly answered, we coasted back down to his 5-acre cliffside estate and stashed our cycling gear in one of his four garages crammed with bikes and Porsches. Then we hopped in a souped-up golf cart and headed for his one-room beach house on the shore of Malibu's Paradise Cove. Next on the agenda: an hour of stand-up paddle boarding.

Before we wrapped up the nearly five-hour workout -- a normal thing for Wildman -- he jumped up to a bar and reeled off 12 full-hang pull-ups, his lats flaring out like a cobra's hood. I eked out 11; between gasps, I said, "I'll get you on these next time, Don."

"Yeah, but you better do those overhanded," he says. "You know those underhand ones are a lot easier." Of course, he's right. I need to train harder.

Some people keep very fit into their 40s and 50s. Wildman is heading full-speed into his 80s.

Wildman isn't exaggerating when he says that his mountain biking is stronger than ever. "My bike speed is similar to my Ironman days -- and there's a reason for that," he said. "Strength helps cardio. In the last decade, I started to try to keep my strength up. As you get older, the fall-off in strength is greater than the decline in VO2 max [oxygen uptake] -- unless you fight it."

Wildman took his old circuit-training routines and ramped them up into what he calls the Circuit, a now-legendary two-hour blasting session. One wing of his estate looks like a compact version of a Bally's gym, stocked with a couple of dozen machines, free weights and inflatable exercise balls.

Everything gets used.